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Why Marilyn Monroe’s White Dress Was So Iconic Matty Zimmerman/AP
Matty Zimmerman/AP

It goes without saying that Marilyn Monroe was more than just an actress. From rags to riches, she survived an abusive and impoverished childhood to become a worldwide superstar. In the most basic sense, that was the American dream. But the sultry blonde bombshell introduced another American dream to audiences as well: one that was outright sexual. Finding prominence during a comparatively prudish era, Monroe defied (and later, defined) expectations of how a starlet could look and talk… and dress. And of all the fabulous, slinky outfits that Marilyn Monroe donned, her flouncing white dress is absolutely the most iconic.

The Seven Year Itch

Marilyn Monroe wore the white dress in director Billy Wilder’s 1955 film, The Seven Year Itch. While the rom-com itself is nothing special, it indulged in society’s most overt fantasies regarding the nubile new actress. The “seven-year itch” is an old-school phenomenon suggesting that men, driven by boredom, are most likely to cheat or leave during the seventh year of marriage. As such, the movie follows Tom Ewell as a nerdy, white collar husband in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Naturally, he starts to lust after his new neighbor, played by Monroe. It’s a will-they-or-won’t-they story that’s honestly mostly forgettable against to the film’s most memorable scene: Monroe standing over the subway grates in her billowing white dress.

This playful moment is titillating for both the protagonist and viewers: a textbook example of the male gaze. And in being so, the scene is now distilled from from the context of the movie it came from. Even Tom Ewell’s character feels like a non-entity in the endlessly recalled, often imitated cultural watershed. After watching Creature from the Black Lagoon, the couple exits the cinema to Lexington Avenue. The Manhattan sidewalk clears out, and as they stroll, the ingenue offers her own humanist analysis of the creature, saying “he wasn’t all bad.” But the semi-philosophical moment is undercut when a train rumbles below their feet. “Isn’t it delicious?” Monroe coos as the subway sends up a gust of wind, ruffling her skirt. The camera focus on her waist-down, a shot which features slim white sandal heels and a red pedicure. As the moan of the transit disappears, the camera cuts back to the two characters’ faces. Everett looks highly amused.

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Marilyn Monroe In Her Iconic White Dress

Matty Zimmerman/AP

Watch The Seven Year Itch and you’ll notice that the most familiar image of Monroe ? a full body shot in which she laughs playfully, lightly forcing her skirt down with her hand ? is not present. In fact, this more direct picture (photographed by Matty Zimmerman) was only used in advertisements. But that was enough to make an indelible impression, as the promotional campaign for The Seven Year Itch was extensive; 20th Century Fox even erected a 52-foot-tall cut-out of the famous pose in Times Square. Even more so than in the film, that display pinned an intimate moment against the hardened expectations of what goes down on a public New York City street. In 1955, this knowing show of indecency transformed everyone into an unwitting voyeur. And immortalized the legacy of the girl in the nearly up-skirt shot.

A Dress That Lives On

Costume designer William Travilla created Marilyn Monroe’s white cocktail dress. So fitting for the scene, the dress’s white halter accentuated Monroe’s breasts without offering much cleavage in its V-neckline. And despite the garment’s full silhouette, Monroe’s waist remains demarcated with tight, criss-crossing ribbon straps. The dress, with its wild movement, is flirty fun. But a serious, constricting waistline keeps the outfit from ever feeling casual. As if specially designed for an imperceptive male eye, the monochrome dress appears simple, slip-like… and is anything but. When her pleated skirt catches the air so effectively, Monroe’s entire ensemble functions like an accidental trap. Although nothing is accidental about about Travilla’s creation. The bright white seems to sparkle against the grimy city grimy sidewalk. With the symbolic purity of white, each of the dress’s seductive elements are undercut by something apparently girlish. The result is an easy charm that derives its power from Monroe’s (perfected) faux innocence on-screen.

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Throughout The Seven Year Itch, Tom Ewell’s stuffy protagonist is overcome by vivid fantasies of the women around him, especially Marilyn Monroe. And while the subway grate scene occurs in reality, there is something quite unbelievable about the (fairly extra) getup that his neighbor dons to their movie outing. As if playing directly into his repressed imagination, the concocted, contradictory design of the pleated dress is sexy without subverting his polite expectations too obviously. However William Travilla was unimpressed by his own work, even calling the final product “that silly little dress.” And Joe DiMaggio agreed! Married to Monroe at the time, the historic baseball player supposedly hated the costume… although likely for a much different reason than the fashion-conscious Travilla. And indeed Travilla has designed more aesthetically exciting pieces for Monroe, like her extravagant gowns in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”

Regardless of William Travilla’s own opinion, it’s the iconic white dress which is most remembered by cinematic history. Yet the designer let it collect dust among his many possessions, and for years the dress went missing from the public eye. It wasn’t until Travilla’s death in 1990 that actress Debbie Reynolds picked it up for a mere $200. In 2011, on the verge of bankruptcy, Reynolds was forced to sell her extensive collection of Hollywood memorabilia and so the white dress went to auction. (By this point, the antique was really more a tan color, or as Reynolds called it, “ecru.” ) It sold for $4.6 million, the highest amount bid for any dress… until one of Marilyn Monroe’s glittering gold gowns went for $4.8 million at a Los Angeles auction in 2016. You may remember the sylphish wonder from when Monroe saying “Happy Birthday Mr. President” to JFK.

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“Happy Birthday Mr. President” By Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe, her famous white dress, and the entire subway grate scene, remain an oft-emulated study in male desire. And these imitations take all forms. From funny halloween costumes to sitcom parodies to larger-than-life pieces of fine art. In 2011, artist Seward Johnson created a super-sized tribute to Monroe in his “Forever Marilyn” statue which traveled worldwide and made its debut on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. By inviting passersby to take a peek ? under her dress, no less ? Johnson recreated the urban marvel of The Seven Year Itch on a massive scale.

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The Marilyn Monroe Statue In Chicago

When the piece was quickly defaced by vandals, the Chicago Public Arts Group released this interesting message about the roles we inhabit as viewers: “In our society, we have little room for sexually expressive images … The social contract doesn’t work, because it is itself laden with political meaning, and provocative meaning and sexual meaning.” I think this is an important idea to consider, especially considering the tragic end of Marilyn Monroe’s life. The misunderstood actress overdosed on pills, likely intentionally, in 1962. And while her career was so inspiring and entertaining, it was ultimately incomplete. It seems there was no real way to reconcile fetishizing public expectations with the human at their heart. And in that, there is a lot more to consider than just am attractive white dress.

Watch: Marilyn Monroe Pearls From Her Last Photoshoot are Heading to Auction

Emily Mack About the author:
Emily Mack is a staff writer for Rare. She currently lives in Chicago and has very strong opinions about where to find the best hot dog. She studied nonfiction writing at Columbia University in New York City, and recently graduated with the Ellis Avery Prize for creative writing. Her favorite topics are Cher, fast fashion, Chicago urban legends, and Jack Nicholson movies.
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